Radical Grace. Directed by Rebecca Parrish. Brooklyn: Cinema Guild, 2015. 86 minutes.
Hip Hop Hijabis. Directed by Mette Reitzel. Doha, Qatar: Al Jazeera, 2015. 25 minutes.
Lone Samaritan. Directed by Barak Heymann. Tel Aviv: Heymann Brothers Films, 2010. 50 minutes.
Though a documentary film about a group of nuns and the Catholic Church might sound preachy, dull, or a relic of the past, Radical Grace is none of these things. The nuns at the center of this film are inspiring, charming, fun, and deeply passionate about justice and compassion. It is a timely and optimistic film, particularly suitable for an audience of young people interested in gender and social change. Radical Grace follows three nuns to tell the story of an episode that took place between 2009 and 2015, when US nuns were formally censured by the Vatican for their feminist tendencies.1 The Pope appointed emissaries to scrutinize and question their lifestyles, religious views, and status in the church. The film successfully situates the individual characters’ narratives in the context of historic shifts and institutional transitions that took place within the Vatican’s leadership and ideology.2 At the heart of this drama lie questions about religion and gender, power and belonging: who represents the church and who authentically follows Jesus’s path? What do obedience, duty, and resistance look like? More generally, it asks, how does social, cultural, and political transformation happen, and is systemic change possible within a conservative culture and institutions?
The opening sequence of the film encapsulates the core narrative: images of all-male gatherings full of frocked Catholic clergy are spliced with older white women in everyday clothing crouching down on the street to speak with a homeless girl. The men are preoccupied with rules and regulations, claiming to speak for the church and using their roles to judge the legitimacy of the women’s actions. The nuns, on the other hand, ditched their traditional white habits to busily and relentlessly devote themselves to easing ordinary people’s suffering, building grassroots power and walking the talk.
The nuns feel deeply hurt and betrayed by the male patriarchal institution to which they dedicated their entire lives.3 Nevertheless, while the church leads a holy war against them—policing their faith and doubting their faithfulness, the nuns fight tirelessly in God’s name to combat everyday moral and social problems: economic inequality, healthcare rights, and racial injustices. Sister Simone Campbell lobbied Congress, built a diverse coalition, and traveled the country by bus, becoming a leading moral voice in the fight for the Affordable Care Act, while her male counterparts focused solely on the contentious issue of abortion. Sister Jean Hughes’s spiritual calling provides some of the film’s most touching scenes, when she—a short, infirm white lady with an irreverent sense of humor—provides solace and hope to the formerly incarcerated black and brown men she ministers to. Sister Chris Schenk focuses her efforts inside the church, advocating for women’s ordination and against the Vatican’s censure. Her struggle is framed as part of wider issues that encompass looking into the past—rectifying historic wrongs like the silencing and erasure of women’s roles in early Christianity—and looking toward the future by forming intergenerational collaborations with young feminists. Beyond the nuns’ humanity and passion, what makes the story even more compelling is the subtle comparison with the more recent historical backdrop: extensive reports of sexual abuse scandals that exposed systemic cover-ups, lack of accountability, and complicity on the part of the Catholic Church.
The film Hip Hop Hijabis has a younger vibe and deals with women living in a different religious and national context, but—surprisingly—it covers similar themes. The film tells the story of Poetic Pilgrimage, a duo of female hip hop artists, Muneera Rashida and Sukina Abdul Noor, who are in the early stages of developing their careers. Like the nuns, they too struggle to find their own voice and overcome fear to authentically follow their passion in a cultural and political context that stigmatizes and limits their power. The film does a good job of highlighting the complex experiences these performing artists have as young, poor, Muslim women of color in the UK. These positions of multiple marginality create unique barriers they must overcome: wearing a hijab and respecting Muslim modesty norms while insisting on singing and performing in public; being a black poor woman in Britain who asserts her right to sound an outspoken critical voice; creating space for women artists in the masculinist culture of the hip hop music scene.4 Despite facing challenges on myriad fronts, the young artists are motivated by a need to speak for themselves and be heard. They represent a generation trying to make sense of their intersectional identities and multiple commitments while unabashedly resisting others’ attempts to stifle or define them.5
One of the most moving scenes is when Sukina reluctantly agrees to alter a performance, shifting from music to spoken word to comply with stricter codes of Muslim modesty in a mixed-gender setting. However, she ultimately uses this opportunity to deliver a powerful and critical piece in which she calls on herself and other women to resist external dictates, surrendering to Allah alone. This is just one example of the way the women learn to be loyal to their truth, which ultimately means claiming their voice and owning their spiritual calling. They feel a moral responsibility to contribute to the world through their art. Yet this contribution is not always well received, as becomes clear in a scene that depicts Poetic Pilgrimage performing at a fancy fundraiser during which both performers and audience feel uneasy. This interesting interaction also hints at class-based divides and racial bias within the Muslim community, offering a more nuanced view of a religious group’s internal differences and tensions. The performers’ awkward experience cements their refusal to merely entertain and accommodate; instead they see their role as agitators who encourage critical thinking, which includes their own self-transformations. The film ends by expanding its perspective to a transnational lens. The camera follows the duo on a visit to Morocco where they experience a new kind of Muslim women’s spirituality that blends Sufi music and prayer with a freer relationship to the female body. Overall, the film can offer students an interesting case study for the intersection of class, race, gender, and religion, as well as the complex ways in which modernity shapes religious lives within local, national, and international contexts.
Both films, Radical Grace and Hip Hop Hijabis, offer a rich invitation to discuss what feminisms can mean today, how to protest creatively and efficiently, and how to surpass binary distinctions of conservative/radical when exploring the place of religion and gender in the modern world.
The third film, The Lone Samaritan, also elaborates on the themes of loyalty, religious belonging in a changing world, and the intersections of gender and religion. Portraying a familial tragedy of ruptured love and a longing for connection, the set-up may seem confusing at first, as it describes a conflict specific to this family and community, yet it is also emblematic of wider tensions between cultural beliefs and traditional norms that seem out of step with modern lives. The film tells the saga of the Tsedaka family, focusing on the elderly father Baruch and his daughter Sophie. The Tsedakas are excommunicated Samaritans, an ancient sect that separated from the Jewish people 125 generations ago and whose descendants now live as an insular tight-knit community of adherents in two locations within Israel and Palestine.
This particular family was shunned when the parents refused to separate from their eldest daughter because she did not submit to the community’s demand that she have an arranged marriage. When the three younger sisters followed suit and abandoned religious norms (leaving only the father and brother to hold the fort), things got worse. The loss of four women—and their potential for progeny—is perceived as inflicting unacceptable harm on a community whose survival depends on absolute loyalty and adherence to its conservative ways. While some daughters seem to have made peace with this fate, the father suffers daily from being left outside the communal bounds, and his loneliness is costing him his health. The tensions arise most clearly around Sophie, the daughter who converted to Judaism, integrated into mainstream Israeli culture, and became a celebrity, singer, and actor. By not only assimilating but thriving and succeeding, she is marked as rebellious and dangerous. In addition to daring to leave the faith she refuses to feel shame and suffer in silence. The film is at its most interesting when Sophie converses with her own daughter, sharing her longing to belong, which merges anger at the abuse and disconnection with a desire for forgiveness and repair.
More generally, the film uses an idiosyncratic story to explore broad themes of love, sacrifice, and loyalty while examining connections between religious, familial, communal, and societal spheres—a frame that shows how powerfully individuals can feel the loss of communal belonging and how this loss may reverberate for generations. It also provides a prime example of how collective identities and social structures—religious and otherwise—often hinge on controlling women’s sexuality and fertility. Therefore, if the first two films reviewed here fill the audience with optimism and renewed vitality, The Lone Samaritan provides no closure, and, like the main characters, leaves audiences in limbo, pondering important questions that linger.
1 For more on the American Catholic feminist movement, see Mary J. Henold, Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
2 For more on the shifts in Vatican policies, see Ryan P. Murphy, “Promises Unfulfilled: American Religious Sisters and Gender Inequality in the Post-Vatican II Catholic Church,” Social Compass 61, no. 4 (2014): 594–610.
3 For more on how such a sense of betrayal by religious institutions can fuel both devotion and resistance in a different religious context, see Tanya Zion-Waldoks, “Politics of Devoted Resistance: Agency, Feminism, and Religion among Orthodox Agunah Activists in Israel,” Gender & Society 29, no. 1 (2015): 73-97.
4 To explore the intersection between hip hop culture, race, and feminism, see Brittney C. Cooper, Susanna M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn, eds., The Crunk Feminist Collection (New York: The Feminist Press, 2017).
5 On addressing the tensions, see Aisha Phoenix, “Negotiating British Muslim Belonging: A Qualitative Longitudinal Study,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 42, no. 10 (2019): 1632-50.